Three Temptations

Three Temptations

First Sunday of Lent. Fr Mark O’Brien preaches on the three temptations of Christ and the temptations that face us.

At first glance, the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness may seem somewhat remote from the things that tempt us. Luke has an eye to his overall presentation of Jesus. Thus, he portrays Jesus deftly refuting the devil each time with a quotation from Scripture. Not only is Jesus filled with the Holy Spirit, he is fully conversant with Scripture and able to use it to telling effect – just the person to be a bearer of God’s good news. With a little imagination, however, we can see that Jesus’ temptations point to situations that are very human and very relevant. I believe this is what Luke wanted us to do: use our imaginations and in this way bring the Gospel message into our lives.

Take the first temptation – to turn stones into bread; that is, for Jesus to use his power to satisfy his desire. Many of us have power to satisfy our needs and wants. But, are we free enough to forego using this power for ourselves and to use it for the benefit of others instead, as Jesus constantly did? Are we free enough to do this even for a time – like the forty days of Lent? Do we find that we give up something for Lent, but really are looking forward to indulging ourselves in forty days’ time? The period of abstinence justfies the indulgence (I have earned it after all). If this is our attitude, have we grown in any way? Is this freedom or enslavement?

Now the second temptation – Jesus can have the kingdoms if he sells his soul to the devil. In our terms, this could be to gain advantage over others by ‘selling’ oneself in the process. Take our search for a desirable ‘career path’. We have ambitions and we want to get on in life. This is a good thing and we give it a good name – progress. But how often do we succumb to the temptation to improve ourselves at the expense of others? We can be witty about another’s foibles and it looks harmless enough. In truth, however, the other is a rival and our purpose is to put him or her down. Is this healthy competition or, once again, a form of enslavement, both of myself because I ‘sell out’ on being fair and honest, and of my rival who is demeaned? Jesus rejected the temptation to sell himself to the devil; he came to set us free from all forms of slavery.

Finally, the third temptation – to put God to the test. This is the most destructive of all because, if it takes root, the others will follow. In effect, we try to enslave God who is expected to do our bidding. After all, God is on our side, so the Scriptures say – and you will notice that the devil is able to quote Scripture very effectively too to suit his purpose. In modern terms, I would call this the ‘toy god’ syndrome. We want a god that we can wind up at will and then put away on the mantelpiece where he will not bother us until needed again. Like most toys, we will throw it away when it no longer serves its purpose. If this is our attitude to God, then it will affect our attitude to human beings as well.

The season of Lent, forty days like Jesus’ forty days in the desert, gives us an opportunity to reflect on our lives and discern where we are failing: indulging that tendency to look after myself first; falling for the temptation to put others down so that we can advance – and calling it ‘healthy competition’ to justify ourselves. Above all perhaps, failing to appreciate the nature of our relationship with God and the extraordinary freedom and dignity that is offered us. We are a consumer society and we can fall into the trap of treating God and neighbour as consumables or disposables.

Another temptation is to see Lent as a reminder of just how bad we are – we approach it with grim determination, or perhaps we just give up, gloomily. Not at all! As Luke writes, Jesus returned from baptism in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. At the end of forty days he was hungry alright, but he wiped the floor with the tempter. The Holy Spirit is now with us and Jesus is with us. We have good reason to believe that, despite our shortcomings and failures, Lent is a time of good news and growth in the Spirit.

Readings:Deut 26:4-10 | Rom 10:8-13 | Luke 4:1-13

fr. Mark O'Brien has been Prior Provincial of the Order of Preachers in Australia and New Zealand. He spent some time at Blackfriars, Oxford, lecturing on the Old Testament.